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Chocolate that's a not-so-guilty pleasure

Some forms of it can be good for the heart, recent findings suggest.

September 15, 2003|Jane E. Allen | Times Staff Writer

Chocoholics have always thought so -- and some scientists have suspected it -- but the evidence is building: A little chocolate can be good for you.

The darker the better. Earlier research had suggested that chocolate has antioxidant properties, but two new studies are being used to extol the specific benefits of dark chocolate and cocoa that hasn't been heavily processed. They found at least short-term cardiovascular benefits to eating 3.5-ounce dark-chocolate bars or drinking about half a cup of cocoa each day.

"If you can find food products that help vascular health, that people find acceptable and palatable, this is huge," says Carl L. Keen of UC Davis, a chocolate researcher.

Forget about white chocolate, though. The ivory-colored confection contains cocoa butter but lacks the beneficial plant compounds in the ground-up cocoa beans that give chocolate its distinctive flavor, aroma and appeal. You probably shouldn't expect much from milk chocolate, either. It's typically lower than dark chocolate in these important chemicals, called flavonoids, and is higher in fat.

Another recently published study found that chocolate combined with dairy products, either in milk chocolate or by washing down dark chocolate with a glass of milk, neutralizes the flavonoids' benefits. But that's a source of debate among researchers, Keen says.

Based on the latest findings, you should choose from among bittersweet chocolate, semisweet chocolate or sweet, dark chocolate. Cocoa, a powdered chocolate with nearly all the fat (cocoa butter) removed is problematic, because most commercially processed cocoas have lost a lot of their flavonoids.

Chocolate comes from beans produced by the Theobroma cacao tree. First consumed as a beverage by Mayans, Olmecs and Aztecs in Central America and what now is Mexico, it was brought to the Old World by Spanish explorers who noted its medicinal use. In the 1600s and 1700s, Europeans treated a variety of disorders, including angina and heart pain, with chocolate. And although the perception in the last 30 to 40 years has been that chocolate lacks health benefits, that pendulum is swinging back again.

Scientists have been trying to pinpoint the source of chocolate's biological effects for about a decade and to determine whether beneficial effects seen in the lab carry over to real-life chocolate eating. Much of their work indicates that flavonoids -- plant chemicals also found in red wine, grapes, apples and tea -- are the crucial ingredients, said Frances H. Seligson, a food consultant in Hershey, Pa., formerly an associate director of nutrition for chocolate giant Hershey Foods. But chocolate also is rich in magnesium, copper and manganese, all important minerals.

Past research has suggested that some of the hundreds of flavonoids in chocolate may lower blood pressure, increase flexibility of blood vessels, prevent blood clots that cause strokes and heart attacks and even help prevent so-called bad cholesterol, or LDL, from clogging arteries.

But it was the two recent human studies that are making nutritionists and cardiologists pay closer attention to chocolate.

In one study, researchers at Germany's University of Cologne fed volunteers, age 55 to 64, either a 3.5-ounce bar of dark chocolate or a similarly sized bar of white chocolate every day for two weeks. The participants, all of whom had untreated high blood pressure, then were switched to the other variety.

Within 10 days of eating the dark chocolate, the volunteers' blood pressure began dropping, according to a research letter published in the Aug. 27 Journal of the American Medical Assn. After two weeks, systolic blood pressure (the upper number) dropped an average of 5.1 points; diastolic pressure (the lower number) dropped an average of 1.8 points. The white chocolate had no effect.

Writing in the same issue, researchers at Heinrich Heine University in Dusseldorf, Germany, compared cocoa rich in flavonoids called flavan-3-ols with commercially available cocoa containing smaller amounts of flavan-3-ols. A single 3.5-ounce drink of the richer cocoa temporarily relaxed blood vessels, which is a sign of artery health.

Physicians aren't about to recommend flavonoid-rich chocolates in lieu of medication. "We do not yet have direct evidence that they reduce risk for cardiovascular disease," said Dr. Ronald M. Krauss, director of atherosclerosis research at Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute. But if the blood-pressure-lowering effect could be confirmed in larger, longer-term studies, he added, "a case could be made for including this as part of a regimen for maintaining cardiovascular health."

Before that could occur, scientists would have to figure out the optimal amount of flavonoids needed to reap the benefits and how often they need to be consumed, Keen said.

Of course, chocolate still is laden with fat, sugar and calories, so if you're thinking about eating it, at the very least, you've got to cut something else from your diet.

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